Philosophy Weekend: David Brooks is On To Something

Existential Memes Psychology

I never expected to find myself defending the work of David Brooks, a recently famous culture critic whose signature work (until now) was Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a bland, predictable putdown of "the Starbucks lifestyle" designed for the bestseller list. I don't particularly like his hectic, pushy writing style, and I haven't even read his new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. But I did read some articles about it, and noted that the book argues an intriguing proposition: we are constantly influenced by subconscious thoughts and needs that we do not understand well, and most of these subconscious thoughts and needs are group-oriented or collective in nature.

This idea reminds me very much of some of my own recent thoughts about why Carl Jung is more relevant to our times than Ayn Rand. The Social Animal does not sell itself as a Jungian work, but that's what it is (though Brooks's emphasis is scientific where Jung's was mystical). I certainly agree with the book's basic conclusion. It seems that David Brooks may have turned a corner and stumbled upon a truly important and valuable idea.

Ironically, the book that is turning me into a David Brooks enthusiast (against all odds, believe me) is earning Brooks the worst ridicule he's ever received in his career. A recent article by Gary Greenberg in The Nation is blisteringly critical of Brooks's entire purpose in this book:

The Social Animal is a deep and public embarrassment, a lumpy hybrid of fiction and science that fails at both, and so miserably that at least for a moment you feel bad for the guy ... when he writes effusively and earnestly and often of “soulcraft” and “soul mates” and “the neverending interpenetration of souls,” of love and God and the meaning of life; when he lays himself bare like this and it just doesn’t work out—well, you want to avert your eyes ...

Many other reviews resort to similar mockery, and there's even a truly hilarious meme going around, based on a very funny photo of the glad-handing David Brooks looking very cheerful while talking into a phone and running down a staircase. Last week this made the pages of the Atlantic Monthly.

I recently overheard a conversation in which people were wondering whether David Brooks has lost his mind. No, he found it. It's bizarre that it's only after he finally wrote a truly perceptive book that people started to hate David Brooks. (Well, some people hated him already, but never like this.)

Gary Greenberg in The Nation does not believe that David Brooks can be serious at all with The Social Animal. He writes the following about Brooks's depiction of Harold and Erica, the fictional case study that provides examples for the book's message:

Erica and Harold’s story is fashioned as an opportunity for Brooks to open his cabinet of curiosities, haul out some amazing insights and dazzle us with claims about the magnificence housed between our ears.

I don't believe this is true at all; I believe that David Brooks is truly impassioned about his (Jungian) realization, and wants to spread the word because he thinks it will help confused people become less confused. I think it will too. Why should anyone be mocked for writing a book of popular psychology, when psychological understanding is so rare and so badly needed in our world today? When I think about the types of behavior considered normal in our society, I feel sure that we lack psychological understanding, and I applaud David Brooks for writing a book that courageously grasps for originality in this area, even if he stumbles on the path.

It's not as if we understand ourselves very well right now. Why do we so often behave in ways that we can't explain? Why are we so addictive and compulsive? Why are racism and social snobbery so pervasive? Why are we so often ashamed of who we are? Why do we fight wars over nothing? Why do we often hate people we used to love? All of these tendencies point to a basic fault line in our grasp of our true nature as human beings.

We especially don't seem to grasp the fact that, for all our professions of individuality, we tend to live, feel and think collectively. We are highly influenced by those we love and those we interact with, much more so than we like to admit. The reason we often behave in ways that we can't personally explain is that during these times we are behaving as groups, and thinking as groups, rather than as individuals. This is a topic well worth further examination.

David Brooks is on to something! I still don't like his hectic, pushy writing style, but The Social Animal deserves more serious treatment than it's received. If anyone has read this book or similar books, I'd like to know what you think.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: In Transit. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Nest.
4 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: David Brooks is On To Something"

I am interested in how unconscious motivations impact behavior. I am interested in reading about how community relationships, a "collective" thinking, influences behavior. But for me to read David Brooks' writing on these subjects, somebody would have to offer me fifty dollars plus the book. I just don't trust Brooks to eloquently or insightfully develop these subjects (and my suspicion, based on trying to read the excerpt of his book in The New Yorker, and from reading Brooks for years, is that the critical response to the book is justified).

by kjml on

Hi Levi,
The book, as you describe it, reminds me of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, which came out in the mid- to late '80s. It enjoyed a long season on the best-seller lists and was a frequent gift item, people obviously feeling that this kind of spiritual account-taking and insight was worthwhile.
Personally, like yourself, I am in favor of this type of effort, though I don't think all proffers are equal: some are worth the time spent. He's not claiming divine inspiration, after all.
Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate is another ambitious work that takes its author miles away from his field of expertise into the speculative realm of philosophical psychology. Naturally, given his politics, his reviews are much more positive. Noam Chomsky once made great (vatic) claims for the powers of 'deep grammar' to awaken us from our social nightmare. His views, though speculative at best, were taken as ground-breaking. There is a market for this kind of writing.
I can't account for the negativity amassing around Brooks' effort - I notice the critic doesn't tell us where Brooks went wrong! - though I suspect that there is more than a little high-brow condescension at work here. (How dare this 'conservative' - read: odious idiot - deign to speak of 'spiritual' matters!)
On the bright side, it could be the best boost his book can get. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.

by kjml on

P.S. E. O. Wilson's 'On Human Nature' and S. Pinker's 'The language Instinct' are two others of similar ambition; the popularizing and social extrapolation of current scientific theories and trends. (Both very well received in their times.)

by Caryn on

I'm intrigued and now looking forward to reading this. Which, as you know, is saying something. I think, perhaps, the most important thing a book can do ... and probably especially a book like this *should* do, is not to provide a smooth narrative and dazzle us with style, but rather serve up the opportunity for the reader to ask themselves questions, continue a conversation and make us squirm in its awkwardness -- serving up something we would rather avoid.

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